Tuesday, December 17, 2013

DUELING MOVIES: What Price Glory? 1926 vs. 1952


                “What Price Glory?” was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings.  It is mainly set in the Western Front of WWI.  Both movies are credited with creating the buddy film.  They also created one of the enduring war movie clichés - the battling rivals in love and war.  This is appropriately known as the Quirt/Flagg trope. 
                The Raoul Walsh silent version begins in China where Flagg (Victor McLaglan) is sweet on a prostitute named Mabel.  He gets into a knock down fight with his big rival Quirt (Edmund Lowe).  The film then jumps to the Philippines where Quirt steals Flagg’s Filipino girl friend.  This is supposed to be hilarious and maybe it was in the Twenties.
                Now that we know that Quirt and Flagg are frenemies who are always after the same girl we are off to the Western Front in 1917.  Flagg is now a Captain in command of a company stationed in a French village.  Flagg is billeted at the local tavern where he begins to woo the saucy owner’s daughter Charmaine (Delores Del Rio).  Because this is technically a war movie, the company gets sent to the front for some action.  They attack across no man’s land in a pretty good set piece with plenty of explosions.  To make sure the audience does not enjoy the war Flagg says:  “There’s something rotten about a world that’s got to be wet down every thirty years with the blood of boys like those.”
                Okay, with that out of the way, it’s back to the village for more wooing.  Guess who shows up to complicate the romance?  Flagg goes off on a ten day pass to wine and wench thus leaving Quirt to move in on Charmaine.  She is receptive because he’s a U.S. Marine and they are pretty interchangeable.  When Flagg returns he is confronted by Charmaine’s father who demands that the Marine who “wrecked” his daughter get hitched to her and throw in 500 francs.  He is referring to Quirt and Flagg is guffawing as the mayor is called in to officiate the wedding.  Close call as Charmaine doesn’t cotton to being sold.  Bugles!  Time for another combat interlude.
Quirt, Charmaine, and Flagg
                This time it’s a night attack.  Explosions go off like a pack of firecrackers as our heroes cross no man’s land.  The action is fast-paced and dynamic.  There are deaths, including the “momma’s boy” who dies in Flagg’s arms.  Lt. Kiper rants about the futility of war and asks “what price glory now?” 
                I won’t ruin the ending for you.  I know you will want to watch the movie to find out who gets Charmaine, but since I mentioned that this was the first buddy film you can bet Quirt and Flagg go marching off hand in hand.
#$%^&*! (subtitled:  You are a big poop head!)
                This is a typical silent film in that the acting is hammy and the soundtrack is incessant.  McLaglan is actually pretty good and Del Rio is spicy (thank goodness we did not have to hear her Mexican accent).  The rest of the cast grossly overacts.  They have one character who must have thought he was the Jim Carrey of his day.  His big schtick is doing raspberries.  His constant mugging is supposed to be hilarious, but comes off as desperately creepy.  The humor is basically slap stick with what passed for witty lines.  Like: “why don’t you blow your brains out?”  One reason why the movie is famous is because McLaglan and Lowe were actually swearing at each other which resulted in complaints from lipreaders.  How quaint!  Someone needs to put out an updated version with accurate subtitles.  Apparently noone had problems with the number of ass shots thrown in.  We see each significant female’s derriere before we get to know their face.
                The movie is more of a romance than a war movie.  The two combat scenes are adequate, but are thrown in to break the monotony of the romance.  The company spends no time in the trenches.  They go off twice to cross no man’s land and then it’s home to the village for wining and wenching.  War is Hell – is what the movie is trying to say, ineffectively.   The romance is lame and I did not care who got the girl.  The two main characters are not to root for.  As far as competition with “The Big Parade”, get serious!
                The 1952 version was directed by John Ford and stars Jimmy Cagney (Flagg) and Dan Dailey (Quirt).  The plot is essentially the same, but there is a lot more physical humor and some songs.  The movie actually has a credit for “dances staged by”.  As a war movie lover, I can tell you that you never want to see that at the beginning of a war movie!  Nor do you want to endure songs being sung by characters.  The combat is periphery again and unrealistic.  Ford does not seem to have his heart in the action scenes.  He does have Quirt and Flagg going into no man’s land together (helmetless) and arguing in conveniently placed shell craters.  The movie has a weird vibe by mixing humor and drama less than deftly.
Charmaine and Quirt
                Cagney and Dailey must have been told they were making a silent movie because they do some serious scene-chewing.  Cagney is basically playing Cagney.  It is an embarrassing performance.  There is no chemistry between the leads.  Corinne Calvet is lovely as Charmaine, but cannot act.  We also get a very young Robert Wagner as Pvt. Lewisohn.
                The 1926 version is not a good war movie.  It is overrated as entertainment, but deserves credit for introducing the Quirt/Flagg trope that will reappear in many future movies – not just war movies, by the way.  The remake is inferior although the fact that it is in sound probably makes it more watchable for most viewers.  I would not recommend either. 
Cagney as Flagg

grades:  1926 =  C-   1952 =  D


  1. I have only seen Ford's version and was honestly embarrassed that he made such a piece of crap since has made so many good movies.

    1. That's my opinion. There are some who like the film. Embarrassing is a good word for it.

  2. As you noted, the Walsh is significant for the buddy trope, but also for the war as adventure and G.I. as seducer themes, which would become prevalent in Hollywood war movies of the 30s (and I'm afraid beyond). It definitely disrupted the 'horrors of war' streak; instead, fighting abroad became something exciting, exotic and desirable. In a nutshell, erotic for men of all conditions (the dashing officer/gentleman thing is more aristocratic, European or Southern).

    Naturally, in this spirit local women are for the taking. Today's feminists speak of the 'orientalization' of women... Enlist, young men! You'll get those Foreign girls without the domestic responsibilities! Just think of the amplitude of anti-VD campaigns directed at U.S. WW2 soldiers.

    And indeed the Ford is minor, yet the first 10 minutes are genius.

    1. Good stuff, as usual. I truthfully can not remember the first ten minutes.


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